Most travelers spend a few days in Hanoi then see popular nearby attractions — Halong Bay, Sapa or Ninh Binh — on group tours. Problem is that Hanoi’s travel-agency scene is marred with scams, bad behavior, lies and dizzying confusion. To give an honest overview of who does what, and who does it best, would mean taking dozens and dozens of tours to the same place– as it’s impossible to rely on tour operators’ self-claims. No guidebooks do that, and I haven’t either. But I’ve talked with scores of travelers and Hanoi locals and dug up the following overview of what’s on offer.

Popular day- and multi-day tour destinations from Hanoi:



Here’s a few things to consider, and a few agencies of all stripes worth considering:

Should you book group tours?

Depends on where you go. The hassle to see Halong Bay on your own is hardly worth it – you’ll end up on a boat with group tourists anyway. So if you want to take an overnight ride around the bay, you’ll tend to have a smoother time going on a tour from Hanoi. Day trips to Ninh Binh’s Tam Coc canals, meanwhile, take far less time than going on your own (though you’ll get more out of it by spending the night in Ninh Binh). Sapa group tours aren’t bad deals, but it’s really not that hard to arrange your trip from Sapa, which allows for more flexibility, and in some cases (not all), better value.

You don’t need to join a tour to go around Hanoi or travel south towards Saigon.

Why all the Sinh Cafes?

Sinh Café, the legacy of the pioneer travel café in Saigon, has one location in Saigon – and it’s ‘real.’ Hanoi probably has 100, with only one affiliated with Saigon’s Sinh Café. I’d recommend avoiding any but the real one (see listing below), as some fake Sinh Café’s have a particularly bad rep.

What’s the differences between the tour agents?

There are essentially three types of trips you can take: high-end deals (with the best guides, best hotel rooms, smallest groups – and the highest prices), mid-range deals (which offer a little more comfort – eg air-conditioning on the Halong Bay cruises – and a grab-bag of guides) and backpacker trips (cheap – on all sides of the coin).

Sometimes mid-range tours are backpacker cheapies in disguise – meaning, you might have a cynical guide who could care less and confusing itineraries where you jump boat to boat in the Halong Bay. Generally I’ve boiled it down to the following to choose from:

High End
EXOTISSIMO (tel 04-935-1400;; open 8.30am-6.40pm Mon-Fri, 8.30am-noon Sat) No giant-bus tours, Exotissimo gets many European travelers – only uses best hotels, best boats, best guides.
BUFFALO TOURS (tel 04-828-0702;; 94 Ma May St) Another high-end choice.


HANDSPAN (tel 04-926-0581;; 80 Ma May St; open 7.30am-9pm) Excellent reputation, though some say you can pay a little less for the same – still, it’s 100% you’ll enjoy your trip
KANGAROO TOURS (tel 04-828-9931;; 18 Bao Khanh St) Run by an Australian ex-pat, well-run tours focus on small groups and reliable mid-range comfort
WIDE EYED TOURS/CULI CAFÉ (tel 04-926-2241;; 40 Luong Ngoc Quyen St) Foreign-run agent with reliable info and an appealing bar upstairs

APT (tel 04-926-2294;; 37 Dao Duy Tu St) Multi-lingual guides and eyes for foreign groups, APT is regarded as a ‘budget-plus’ agent by some.
SINH CAFÉ (tel 04-926-1568;; 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen St) The real one.
VEGA TRAVEL (tel 04-926-2092; 24A Hang Bac St) Sells transport and budget tours (without claiming to be ‘Sinh Café’).

Should you book before arriving in Vietnam?

It’s not necessarily usually. You might want to if you’re coming July to September or during Vietnamese New Year, when many many domestic travelers hit the road (and that number increases every year!). If you have a day or three to spare when you arrive, you can shop around – interview a few choices and hear from fellow travelers as well.